INTERVIEW/ James Holmes: Japan should not expect U.S. to defend Senkakus with enthusiasm

October 09, 2012

By TAKASHI OSHIMA/ Correspondent

WASHINGTON--The central question in the row between Japan and China over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands is how the United States will respond if tensions spill over into military conflict.

The Asahi Shimbun interviewed James Holmes, associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, for his views.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

* * *

Question: In case of a contingency in the Senakus, what would be the U.S. response based on the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty?

Answer: We look at these treaties and they do obligate us to make a joint response of some sort. Probably, the clearest-cut treaty that I know of as far as collective defense is concerned is the NATO Charter. But if you read Article Five of that charter, it doesn’t say, “So, if one power is attacked, everybody goes to war.” It obligates everybody to respond somehow, and that’s sort of the same verbiage that you see in your own security treaty.

Q: Then what kind of response would it be?

A: I don’t know if I know what the answer is. And, in fact, (Prussian military philosopher Carl von) Clausewitz talks about the value that the various belligerents attach to their goals driving their efforts. It’s the same thing within an alliance; the allies can attach different values to different goals as well, and there could be some “daylight” between the United States and Japan.

And one thing I pointed out in the subsequent piece to this (essay posted on the website of Foreign Policy magazine) is that Japan should not expect the United States to defend those islands with any particular enthusiasm ... because, for us, we don’t attach a whole lot of value to them, except insofar as it’s an alliance maintenance issue. But, in any event, I could see some tensions arising, within the alliance, that China will try to exploit, and I think that’s exactly what we’re seeing them try to do, try to widen that daylight between the United States and Japan.

I think, ultimately, the United States and Japan still work together. But, while they debate what to do, that gives China time, and time is a very valuable asset, as you know. If they can get across the East China Sea, if they can get a task force over there while the United States and Japan are debating, that, perhaps gives them the edge and perhaps they spring a “fait accompli” on us.

So, that’s just kind of a squishy answer, but that’s kind of how I see it. You could see some split between the United States and Japan that takes some time to close back up.

I would say that we need to be a little more solid on our commitment to Japan and to defending the islands. Otherwise, the Chinese will conclude that the alliance might show some fissures that China could exploit. And that would make war more likely and not less likely, if they do conclude that.

Q: Do you think there is anything Japan can or should do more?

A: Yes, well, I mean, to me, the big thing that you all need to do is bust through the 1 percent cap on defense spending. I don’t see that you can do all the things you need to do to defend those islands and, indeed, to contend with the Chinese ... . To me, 1 percent is not a serious commitment. That’s not a serious commitment to defense.

I mean, when I’m in Taiwan, I’m always getting after them for only spending less than 3 percent, which proportionally is bigger than what Japan spends. I understand about all the historical impediments to doing so, but I think that’s just how it is. Japan can’t expect the United States to come in and take “the lion’s share” of the burden in contingencies like this. Yes, we’ll be there, provided Japan shows that it’s willing to take on the burden for its own defense.

Q: You wrote in the piece in Foreign Policy magazine that in terms of numerical terms, there is no match.

A: Yes, just by numbers of hulls and numbers of aircraft and so forth. Yeah. But I’m saying that they do not necessarily ... the Chinese don’t automatically win simply because they have more “stuff.”

I mean, one of the problems with studying China is just because they’ve been very effective about not divulging too much about where they stand as far as their capabilities and especially, the big thing I brought out in this piece, was the training and the morale of their officers and crews.

It’s my belief that Japan remains well ahead, technologically. And, since you all spend so much time at sea actually practicing the skills that you need to operate at sea, in peacetime and wartime alike, I think this adds up to an advantage that could very well tip the scales in Japan’s favor.

Q: But in the second piece posted recently, you gave China the edge if a battle were to take place now. Why?

A: To say Japan would stand a good chance in general terms is different from saying it has the advantage in a remote theater when fighting over islands with little geostrategic potential. Also, bear in mind that Tokyo has not done most of the things I recommend doing in the second piece. The military situation in the southern Ryukyus and the Senkakus is extremely tenuous, which is why I said China holds the advantage were a conflict to occur today.

By TAKASHI OSHIMA/ Correspondent
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James Holmes (Photo by Takashi Oshima)

James Holmes (Photo by Takashi Oshima)

  • James Holmes (Photo by Takashi Oshima)

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